BANGOR, Maine — Cleaning and renovation crews are working on the areas burned by flames or damaged by water during a Wednesday morning fire at John Bapst Memorial High School in hopes that the school’s doors can reopen next week.
“Our first objective is to make sure it’s safe and secure for school on Monday,” John Bapst trustee Karl Ward, president of Brewer contractor Nickerson & O’Day, told a group touring the school Thursday morning that included two fire inspectors and the city’s building inspector.
The fire, reported at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, was accidentally started by a longtime employee trying to melt ice on the roof with a propane torch. The resulting efforts to extinguish the fire led to a water-logged ceiling inside the Joseph W. Sekera Auditorium that fell on and injured one firefighter.
John York of the Bangor Fire Department was treated for wrist and neck injuries at Eastern Maine Medical Center and released a few hours later.
“John is home and resting and doing OK,” his wife, Laura York said in media release issued late Thursday. “He is pretty banged up and will need some time to recuperate from his injuries which right now are a sprained neck, sprained left wrist, multiple contusions and a concussion. We are grateful that it wasn’t much worse and thank the firefighters that were right there and got him out safely.”
“It truly is a brotherhood,” she said later. “Hopefully it won’t be long before John is back at work doing the job he has loved for over 20 years.”
Students are on February break and were not in the school when the fire broke out. About a dozen employees evacuated safely.
The fire damaged a roof and storage closet on the back of the third floor, and the water used to extinguish the flames filtered down to saturate the ceiling of the auditorium and the left balcony where York was standing. After the balcony ceiling fell on York and he was evacuated, the water filled the balcony, and holes were drilled into the ornate plaster on ceilings below to drain the fluid.
“It drained for hours,” Ward said, estimating that more than 2,000 gallons of water traveled inside the ceilings and second floors of the auditorium and balcony areas.
Water also got into the historic school’s electrical system so the approximately 100,000-square foot building’s fire alarms no longer worked, Ward said.
Crews are working on the problem, but the school cannot reopen without the alarms working properly, according to fire inspectors Dan Landers and Lance Sanborn. Sanborn said in addition to fixing the obvious problems caused by the fire inside the building that first opened in 1928, he will make a few recommendations to increase building safety.
“When I got here, I thought it was a $50,000 fire,” Ward said. “By the end of last night, I thought it was a $75,000 fire, and what I’m saying now is that [the total] is going to depend on the water damage in the ceiling.”
Students, parents and staff will not be able to tell the difference after the renovation work is complete, Ward said.
“It will be exactly the way it was,” he said of the damaged scrollwork carved into the columns and ceilings. “It’s not our first rodeo.”
Melville MacKay, the head of school, said the school’s insurance will cover fixing the fire damage. He said the decision was made Wednesday night to add heat tape to the area where the ice built up on the roof.
While the damage is being repaired, half of the auditorium, which also serves as the cafeteria for the school’s 500 students, will be partially closed, MacKay said.
“We’ll serve out of here, but they’ll have to eat in their classrooms for an undetermined amount of time,” he said. “Also, one of the classrooms, a science classroom, may be displaced.”
School leaders are considering an offer to use space at the adjacent St. John’s Episcopal Church, he said.
The work crews are working around the clock to fix the problems before Monday, Ward said.
“I’m very confident we’ll be open,” he said.